The Green Space | Ode to Winter

The Green Space is a biweekly blog about all things environmental — whether we’re talking a mason-jar compost heap or the entire world.

By Sarah Stager, Contributing Editor

It’s February — dark, gloomy, gray and cold. Groundhog’s Day has come and gone, and according to that critter, we have six more winter weeks before the arrival of the first tender buddings of spring. As the semester drags its feet and the pandemic celebrates its first anniversary, it may seem like this winter will never end.

That’s a-OK with me.

I adore winter. It’s my favorite season, which may be my most unpopular opinion of all time. I don’t just mean the holiday season — I love most especially the bleak midwinter, the long stretch of dark cold that trudges on after the New Year, often reaching its icy fingers into March.

I love the snow that floats like dust motes in buttery streetlight, the scraping of the plow along the streets, skeletal tree branches stabbing toward the quilted sky. I love the air that stings my cheeks, the breath collecting in the crook of my scarf, the burnished tans and pastel jades of fallow fields stretching toward a pale gray horizon.

Love lives in contrasts. Hot tea to ward off the season’s cold breath, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders as I listen to the warm cadences of my professors’ lectures and the wind beats against my windowpane. Balmy breath translated by phone in my ear as I speak to my friends, separated from me by an ocean of snow. Blanketed in white, self-isolation feels less like entrapment than like hibernation. I will emerge from this period new, in bloom, a better version of myself for having endured the cold.

Let’s leave behind the abstractions for now and go for a walk. Better to show you how lovely winter can be than to tell you. I am not in Pittsburgh, but let’s just imagine for a second that I am. You are walking with me — and it’s snowing, of course. Darkness has already descended — the days are short, after all — and we are charting course for upper campus, making our way along Fifth Avenue.

You can hear the snowflakes clinging wetly to your coat. Shades of blue and purple on the contours of concrete, and the entire City has turned into an impressionist’s canvas. Cherry-red glow of the stoplight softened, jewel-toned cars topped with caps of white. Despite the supposedly blank canvas carpeting Oakland, there is color here. 

You tilt your chin back to aim your gaze at Towers, and take note of the pattern that the lighted windows sear into the dark. Here, fairy lights twinkle, there LED strips meld through all the colors of the rainbow, there little jelly snowflakes stick to the window. People are living within those rooms, fortified against the cold, their lives running parallel to yours, but never quite touching. They can see, from their fortresses, snowflakes tracing a glittery path down to your upturned face.

Here, there is solidarity. Those students are leading their own encapsulated lives, guarding against winter gloom with blankets and hot chocolate and cheery strings of light. They will all stand in the cold at some point, like you, listening to snowflakes dust their heavily clad shoulders. And you will be in your own fortress, watching the arc of the snow that will land on their faces.

But we must move along. We leave Towers behind, cross the street, and head up toward the Pete. Because this is an imaginary world, your legs don’t hurt, and you don’t get out of breath. You’re welcome.

As we walk, we pass a few others, wrapped in their winter wear like us. Their eyes glitter out at us, but, following East Coast etiquette, we don’t greet them. Our hands are shoved deep into our pockets. Our lumbering steps pull us forward. The snow squeaks cleanly under our booted feet. You see snowflakes catch in their hair, and they yours. We walk on toward the brilliant monolith crowning the hill.

Inside the Pete, the air feels almost tropical in its sudden press upon your bundled body. As we mount the escalator, we turn to look back at the City sliding away from us. The distant hills are mere sketches, the buildings jostling along their sides invisible behind sheets of snow except for the yellow glow wavering forth from their windows. The trees lining the stairs leading to Irvis Hall have acquired a delicate tracing of white, standing in dramatic relief to their dark background. Warm light floods all the glass-encased common rooms in Panther and Irvis halls, and you see that one student has left their window cracked to let in a breath of cold.

We cross the concrete plain at the top of the Pete, and ascend the stairs beside Sutherland. The snow here is satiny and unbroken. As you plant your footprint, you’re making your mark on hallowed ground. Topping the hill at last, we survey the City. The snow eddies around us, simultaneously buffeting the skyscrapers that sprout across the valley. Flickering yellow crowds the hills — more parallel lives, continuing forward despite the storm outside. We stand and salute our City in the season of its glory.

In a few days, the snow will turn to slush, and the magic will fade a little. Steely gray will dominate the landscape, but the cold will remain, to take your breath away, to cause you to notice warmth when you feel it.

It’s obvious that I romanticize winter quite a lot. There are bad bits, I can admit, and winter can be downright dangerous under certain circumstances. Still, I believe it would be a shame to let those bad bits ruin a whole four months out of every year. I prefer to savor the winter colorscape and let my eyes tear up in the wind. I prefer to love without reason, and to bask in every last scrap of joy that I can find, even in the midst of a dark, cold winter’s night.

Take a winter walk every now and then, if you can. You might just like what you see.

Sarah writes primarily about trees, climate change and walking. You can reach her at [email protected].